Adjusting to daily life with my parents and younger brother has been an iterative process. The last time the four of us inhabited a shared living space was over eight years ago. They were my final months leading up to undergrad, and I remember itching to get out. I felt so ready to break out of the protected shell and discover the real world.
And so it is, that in my exploration of the world, I find myself back running back to my childhood home.
Much has changed over the past eight years for all of us. I have gone to college, worked abroad, and am now in medical school. My younger brother completed high school and most of his undergrad. In the time that has passed, routines have matured, habits have developed, views of the world have been shaped. Peers, classes, teachers, and experiences have left their lasting impressions on the ways in which each of us comprehend the world. The four of us bicker about politics and class, and rights and responsibilities, morals and ethics.
Other things, however, have remained the same, frozen in time over the past seven years. Our collective love for Mumbai street food, our appreciation of classic movies, and our need for fresh air, to name a few. We find ourselves taking trips down memory lane over dinner and reminiscing over old family trips.
This pandemic, while wreaking terror on families worldwide, has given me a unique opportunity to appreciate mine. Momentarily. I feel guilty.
This morning I awoke to plastic stars and cardboard planets on my ceiling.
A wooden fish mobile, and a dreamcatcher with two post-it cranes.
Blue wallpaper, with dancing orange and yellow and turquoise and purple daisies.
A card table with a Pixar desk lamp (down a lightbulb.)
A spectrum of Harry Potter books on the shelf to the side, just over The Giver and Eragon and Little Women.
I put a collared shirt on over my pajama bottoms, put the kettle on, and sat down to Zoom.
Two weeks ago, the two first-years, a third-year, and an attending met in a sunny charting room in Cambridge, patagonias and stethoscopes at the ready.
Now we appear on a screen. Our preceptor is in clinic. Students are in our bedrooms - one of us actually in bed. We ready ourselves for televisits and virtual cases, and dive into the clinic morning.
During a lapse between clinical activities I inquire about the trophies I see half on-screen and learn about track and field, about past theater, about musical instruments.
We talk about the strange dreams we've been having from home.
Those who study trauma are advising us, these days, to bring ourselves into the present by naming our surroundings.
But for those of us who find ourselves telecommuting to medical school from our childhoods, this is surely a ticket to the past.
I had no idea how grounding that would be.
Where did this concept of ‘social responsibility’ come from? Who do we have a responsibility to - is it to our loved ones, members of our community, to humanity? Is it the young to the elderly? The wealthy to the poor?
Why is it framed in the context of responsibility to others - is it to trigger a moral response? Given that the United States has historically prided itself on individualism and agency, the current weight of the words 'social responsibility' is astounding. Perhaps it is the unprecedented fear and uncertainty that has, in a blink of an eye, removed our necessity to prioritize individual rights. Perhaps the phrase "social responsibility" is a acknowledgement that we do not have as much control over our individual choices as we once thought we did.
we're more than a couple weeks in now, & in addition to reflecting on whom and what I'm missing, I've also had the chance to take a step back and think more about what I'm grateful for and what privilege I have--something I wish we in our first-world society could do more often.
my parents raised me to be aware of our family's history as war refugees, and keeping in mind what my family went through in the 60s/70s/80s, given the current circumstances, I know I have it made: a roof over my head, a bed to sleep on, and no questions about my next meal, running water, electricity, or heat. There's a lot of suffering happening in this world right now, but I personally can't lay claim to knowledge of what that experience is like. Everything today in our country is on pause, but it's only a matter of when and not if it will resume back to normal. In contrast, my family's old country was devastated by a decades-long war, and then overnight, ceased to be.
the day the capital fell in my family's old country, my mom at age 10 and her family fled on a boat to cross the Pacific. Each day on that journey, they had to ration 1 small bowl of rice amongst the 7 of themselves. My dad at 14 fled alone and fended for himself in a refugee camp, looking for food scraps by day, sleeping in a ditch by the road at night. When they arrived in the US, they were dirt poor. They had only the clothes they wore. It was nothing short of a miracle that they survived.
today, I don't have to ask myself whether I have a country to call home where I can stay or shelter in place. The only question I have is where to buy toilet paper next. I really have nothing to complain about.
my point is: I miss and I am thankful for my family and friends, my school, and the stuff of the culture I grew up in. But I also know it's a privilege even to have something or someone to miss and look forward to seeing again.
In some ways, life remained the same for me right until the moment that med students were pulled out of clinical rotations. I had been on my medicine sub-I at CHA. I would wake up, eat a generous helping of oatmeal, and then head over to the Charles/MGH T stop. When the train pulled in, a blue scrub-donning troop of medical workers would pour out, presumably marching towards MGH.
At the hospital, I admitted patients and followed up on tasks as per the usual. But the restrictions and precautions crept up on us. We religiously wiped down our computers and phones before and after shifts. My hands cracked from endless pumps of hand sanitizer. A patient with a likely COPD exacerbation and the tiniest of sniffles was suddenly off-limits for me.
Gallows humor was rampant in the resident workroom. "M-m-m-my corona!" was a common refrain, as well as bets on which resident might get COVID-19 first (one nominated themselves on the grounds of being an “idiot”). It was partially a morale booster, and maybe partially bravado for the increasing tension and paranoia.
I'm home in California now. For the next two weeks, my world is my sister's room (my dad converted mine into a home office), the adjacent bathroom, and the streets of my suburb for my socially distant walks to be especially cautious with my parents given my recent travel.
When I’ve mentioned to non-medical friends that I’m back home, I’ve been asked if I saw any patients with COVID-19, like I have some dirty details. “Not that I know of,” I reply. The amount of times I’ve said that makes this whole affair seem like a bad dream, some stealthy specter.
On the one hand, the pandemic is everywhere. I watch numbers pour in from MGH and CHA keeping track of PUIs, those hospitalized/requiring intensive care, and employees who tested positive. I peruse websites breaking down the number of confirmed cases worldwide, and fractionating these numbers by day, daily increases, logarithmic scales, deaths, and so on. And there are the endless emails from students, advocacy organizations, and the school. Yet all of this comes online or through a TV screen, making it somewhat abstract. Not that the weather has anything to do with the pandemic, but when I go outside, the sky is ridiculously beautiful (perhaps from the light traffic), making it hard to believe that something so terrible could be occurring. I know rationally that the abstract could become very real at any time, and that I am in a position of privilege where my life has not been upended by the reeling economy, but it’s hard to shake this feeling of disbelief.
And yet, despite the abstract nature of the pandemic, I feel its weight. I feel like I should be back in the hospital “doing” something (even though having the means to stay home is doing something). I'm not so naïve as to think of myself as essential personnel, even if as a sub-I I was expected to act as the point person for my patients. I have found myself studying and reading about the virus and medicine more broadly with a zeal that I could hardly muster for shelf exams during rotations. Why am I doing this? Is it some coping mechanism of dubious utility (“rationalization,” as First Aid might describe), a function of the increased time and nervous energy?
It’s hard to say. I don’t think anyone can fully grasp the ramifications of these events on the world yet; “this is new for all of us” is something I hear thrown around all the time as well. I imagine we’ll be still grappling with the effects of the pandemic long after the worst of it is over. In the meantime, I suppose I will continue to talk my daily walks of sanity and talk more with my family, to try to make the best of this strangeness.
I am disgusted by how many people, particularly fellow medical students, are capitalizing on COVID by "doing" so many things and starting so many organizations for which they'll mobilize other students for their own glory. It disgusts me. As time goes on, these endeavors multiply. I can already imagine these people during interviews explaining, "During the COVID19 outbreak I started up *blah blah blah*". I'm not impressed. It's a place where I see so much capitalization of other's suffering.
As I sit at home for what feels like the umpteenth day, I feel complaints bubbling to my lips. It feels like my routine is monotonous, my daily accomplishments are superficial, and my energy feels confined, cooped-in. I thought today about how there is so much privilege in being able to quarantine. I have a home to call my own, enough food (and money for grocery delivery) to last for a while, and frankly plenty of indoor tech to keep me occupied. It’s also a blessing to continue to be a student at this time in a world where much of my learning can still happen online. There are so many whose livelihood and productivity aren’t tied to their computers and for them, the world might have grinder to a halt. I also think about how this disease ultimately is spread the farthest by the privileged- people who can travel internationally- while the burden will still ultimately fall on the poor. So for today, I remind myself to see my boredom from comfort as a reflection of my fortune.
My brain has entertained me with a steady flow of questions to mull over, to turn inside out over and over again until I cannot think anymore. I will let you chew on them instead:
1. How many days will it take until the words “coronavirus” or “pandemic” or “COVID” are no longer mentioned daily. Months? Years?
2. When will I be able to take public transportation, or push open a public door and not momentarily consider the germs that reside on that surface? When can I sneeze in public without a stink eye thrown my way?
3. What will the healthcare profession look like after this? Will we emerge stronger in our successful triumph over the virus? Or perhaps we will emerge defeated, unable to have contained the destruction?
4. What will the DSM-6 look like? Will there be a COVID-related psychiatric diagnosis? One that is a combination of social isolation, hypochondria, and agoraphobia?
Accomplishments: running more (and more consistently) than I ever thought I could. Actually self-studying every day. Making coffee for myself in the morning. Being cheerful and present for Zoom calls, even if that’s not how I feel; ultimately, we are all at our core sad and shaken and surprised and disappointed and lonely (but even though that is the baseline, that weight shouldn’t be dragged on the floor from call to call. We know already.) Thinking deeply about my impending leadership role with one of my extracurriculars and coming up with solutions to make transition as smooth as possible. In the same vein, reminding myself that there is a future after this. Areas of improvement: Breathing deeply- and then biting my tongue- in response to Facebook posts that emphasize name-calling and blaming as a way of coping with coronavirus. Being better about doing assigned online work instead of letting it pile up. Being more patient. Turning off Facebook and Instagram for a moment instead of constantly comparing myself to my incredibly talented and proactive colleagues. Accepting that this way of living is shitty instead of constantly looking for ways to measure it up to the real-life business of living and breathing and laughing and loving in person. Accepting that we are all doing our best.
How the fuck did this thing get so big? Where did it come from? How do all of the other viruses of the world suppress and get squashed by the weight of human routine and business as usual and get-fluids-and-plenty-of-rest-and-it's-only-the-flu?
I'm scared. And I'm even more scared that no one has answers to these questions- answers with teeth that sink in to the meat of the uncertainty and tear it to digestible pieces.
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